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Just Hop on the Van, Man

Transported by private companies, wayward inmates discover that their journey to prison can be a long, strange trip.

When William Minnix was arrested in Ohio last summer, he thought he knew what to expect. He knew he would be extradited to Colorado to face a charge of violating his parole on a felony theft conviction. He also knew that the 1,000-mile trip back to prison, shackled in a van operated by a private extradition company, would probably take longer than the 24 to 36 hours such a journey usually requires.

What Minnix didn't know was exactly how long his road trip would last. Four or five days, he figured. A week, tops.

"I'd heard the horror stories about the long trips," Minnix says. "It was a joke to the drivers. They'd kid me and the other prisoners that we might end up in Florida, that we might not see Colorado for months."

As it turned out, the drivers weren't entirely kidding. Minnix spent most of the month of July in transit, a bizarre odyssey that included side trips to pick up and drop off prisoners in New York, Michigan, Maryland, Kentucky, Wisconsin, South Dakota and several more swings through Ohio before fi-nally reaching Colorado.

In all, Minnix managed to visit twenty states in twenty days --during which time, he claims, he was shuttled from van to van, remained shackled for periods of up to 36 hours, slept on the floor of county-jail drunk tanks, was frequently denied showers and other basic hygiene needs, and suffered injuries in a traffic accident caused by a careless driver employed by the extradition company, Transcor America, Inc. He's since filed notice of intent to sue Transcor and the Colorado Department of Corrections over what he terms "the barbaric and violative treatment" he received.

Minnix's is one of a tide of inmate complaints that have been lodged against private extradition companies, which have become one of the hottest growth areas for private-sector involvement in the corrections industry. Increasingly, overcrowded state prison systems are turning to such companies to carry not only extraditees but thousands of prisoners moved to and from private jails out of state. Despite growing concerns about unsafe conditions, the threat of escapes, circuitous routes that keep inmates on the road for days or weeks, and even allegations of mistreatment of female prisoners by male security guards, the private companies are generally considered more economical than using state personnel or hiring the U.S. Marshal's Service, the federal escort service featured in the Hollywood blockbuster Con Air.

The private services usually operate small vans with fewer than fifteen passengers, which means they're exempt from most federal regulations concerning commercial interstate transport. (In fact, there are more stringent federal laws for shipping livestock than for shipping prisoners.) And since the companies' profits depend on volume, they typically make numerous stops to pick up prisoners bound for hoosegows in several states, housing them overnight in county jails along the way--a process that involves moving armed private guards and dangerous offenders through dozens of jurisdictions with little or no notice to local law enforcement.

"We coordinate every trip within reason to pick up as many people and deliver them to the customers in the shortest period of time," explains Chuck Kupferer, executive vice president of Transcor America. "That causes some variations geographically in the route of travel."

All that road time has produced its share of accidents, escapes--and tragedies. Last April six prisoners burned to death when a van caught fire in Tennessee; all six were locked into a wire-mesh cage in the back. The van, operated by the Federal Extradition Agency (FEA), a private company headed by a former bounty hunter, had been in service for more than 260,000 miles; state investigators believe the vehicle's driveshaft fell off and punctured the gas tank.

Prisoners complain that van drivers often ignore the speed limit and sometimes stay behind the wheel until they nod off. A snoozing guard may have been the key to an escape last summer from a Federal Extradition van that stopped in southeastern Colorado to pick up a prisoner. Authorities say that Dennis Glick, a lifer being transported from Utah to Arkansas, overpowered the sleeping guard, took his guns and sped off in the van with the rest of the prisoners in the back. Glick, who later commandeered a horse, was captured by a dragnet of local and state law enforcement personnel. FEA has been billed more than $17,000 for the costs involved in retrieving Glick and the other prisoners, but Chip DeLuca, director of law enforcement for the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office, says his agency "hasn't heard a word from them" in response.

FEA, though, controls only a small part of the private inmate-transport business. The giant in the field is Transcor America, a Tennessee-based company that moves a staggering 45,000 to 50,000 inmates a year--including mass transfers of state prisoners housed in private jails, such as the Colorado inmates in Texas and Minnesota. Started on a shoestring in 1990, Transcor was purchased three years ago by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the world's largest private corrections company, and now boasts contracts with a total of 1,100 corrections agencies from all fifty states, a fleet of 125 vehicles, and annual revenues of more than $10 million.

Transcor's Kupferer, a former federal marshal, says his company has come to dominate the field through high-quality service, intensive training of its security guards (known as "agents"), and strict policies governing vehicle safety and the treatment of prisoners. As a result of its growing reputation, the company is now handling more inmates--and more violent offenders--than ever before.

"Two years ago the overwhelming majority of our extraditees were probably nonviolent," Kupferer says. "Not so anymore. That's because of us. The law enforcement communities didn't trust us like they do now; they'd handle the tough ones themselves."

Transcor's policy manual states that prisoners should be in transit an average of four days or less; a similar provision is contained in the company's $120,000 annual contract with the Colorado Department of Corrections, which pays the company on a straight-line per-mile basis, with a minimum of $200 per head. But due to the vagaries of weather and the necessity of picking up and dropping off passengers at jails hundreds of miles apart, that standard isn't always met, Kupferer admits.

"If a guy wrote to you and said he was on the road for fifteen days, I have no doubt in my mind that he was," Kupferer says. "It's not rare, but it's not usual."

But the Transcor executive disputes Minnix's account of being on the road and shackled for more than 24 hours at a stretch. Transcor requires its agents to take an 8-hour rest period in every 24, he notes. "It may have happened, but I would have serious doubts about it," Kupferer says. "If it did happen, our agents are instructed to take some measures--stop, let them out of the vehicles, take the shackles off, let them stretch and have a smoke. But those are rare instances."

Other prisoners, though, say such instances aren't rare at all. Colorado prisoners shipped back from Texas--and in some cases, on to Minnesota--in forty-passenger buses operated by Transcor have complained of being on the road for up to forty hours without a break. (The mass transfers aren't part of the state's contract with Transcor; they're paid for by the private jails, which agree to arrange transport as part of their contract with the Colorado DOC.) Some prisoners have described being trapped on the buses for several hours without adequate food or toilet facilities after a breakdown or accident en route.

"I was one of those who could barely walk to exit the vehicle after such a trip," one inmate wrote in a letter to Westword. "I know of no jail that could confine forty inmates in a tight, cramped space, chained hand and foot and together, given no water and limited restroom use, and not allowed to stretch for up to forty hours. It would be considered inhumane."

Another Colorado inmate, Earby Moxon, says he was traveling at night through northern New Mexico last July on a Transcor bus with faltering headlights. The driver wound up negotiating Raton Pass with a flashlight stuck out the window, Moxon says. Another prisoner, Richard O'Donnell, sums up a similar headlight failure on a September trip across I-80 in Nebraska as follows: "Forty prisoners! A bus! No headlights! On an interstate in the middle of the night! At 50/60/70 mph! No lights! I've just decided to sue Transcor!"

Kupferer is skeptical of such claims. "I find it hard to believe that local law enforcement would let one of our vehicles proceed with no lights," he says.

Inmate Minnix contends that the agents on his trip frequently ignored Transcor's safety policies; one speed-happy driver even boasted of having disabled the electronic governor that is supposed to keep the vans from traveling at more than 65 miles per hour. Minnix's account of the trip, recorded in a diary with a pencil he kept in his shoe (see related story, page 9), reads like an outline for the next National Lampoon's Vacation sequel, with a cast of surly and nearsighted drivers, a neglected, mentally ill prisoner who thought he was on an airplane, and one agent who quit in disgust after numerous delays.

"I couldn't sleep on the van," says Minnix, now incarcerated at the Fremont Correctional Facility outside Canon City. "I was worried about my life. They sometimes drove sixteen, eighteen hours without relieving one another, and there were quite a few times we had to holler at the driver to wake him up. I didn't feel safe at all."

Near the end of his trip, Minnix claims, he suffered neck injuries in an accident outside Leavenworth, Kansas, but didn't receive medical attention until several hours after the incident. But Kupferer says that he's "comfortable" with his company's safety record and that most inmate complaints about driving mishaps are exaggerated.

"I have seen and know of instances where you bump a curb accidentally when you're parking and they're screaming that they've got whiplash," he says. "It's bullshit."

The most serious allegations raised against Transcor have to do with deliberate mistreatment of inmates during their meandering trip to prison. Two federal lawsuits filed in Denver against the company claim that a male Transcor employee sexually assaulted female prisoners on two separate trips to Colorado; on both occasions, no female employee was present, contrary to the company's stated policy that women inmates must be escorted by at least one female agent.

Both women, Beverly Hirsch and Joann Gwynn, claim that they were placed in the front of the van rather than with the rest of the prisoners; that Transcor agent Jack ter Linden fondled and assaulted them and bragged of his encounters with other women prisoners; and that ter Linden and the other male agent on the trip skimmed from the prisoners' food allowances and "falsified their trip logs, food forms and other Transcor forms."

In court filings, attorneys for Transcor and ter Linden, who no longer works for the company, have denied the allegations; although placing prisoners in the driver's cab is a security breach, an affidavit from a Transcor executive states that having all-male guards looking after female passengers "had no impact on prisoner safety." The allegations in each case stem from trips that occurred in 1993, before CCA took over the company. Kupferer says he can't comment on pending litigation but insists that Transcor no longer transports females with two male agents "unless it's an emergency situation."

Transcor's critics say that what happens in the vans may be quite different from the policies issued by the home office. "There's no supervision at all," says attorney Todd Jansen, who represents both Gwynn and Hirsch. "They call in to headquarters every few hours, but they could take eight hours off, drive the rest of the time and tell them they're wherever. Who's going to know?"

The larger question is whether public corrections agencies, such as the Colorado Department of Corrections, can be held liable for Transcor's actions as a subcontractor.

"It's certainly an area of law that hasn't been litigated a lot," notes Brian Stern, a New Hampshire attorney who's pursuing a lawsuit against Transcor on behalf of another female inmate who's alleging harsh treatment at the hands of male guards.

But Stern believes Transcor's customers could wind up in court as well. "They're acting as an agent of the state," he says. "They're a private, for-profit company that's mistreating prisoners, and Colorado has to look at that. Their prisoner is their responsibility. They can be held liable; the question is whether there's enough proof."

Brian Burnett, the DOC's director of finance and administration, says he's unaware of any complaints about mistreatment of prisoners extradited to Colorado. "Everything I hear from our parole and community corrections people is that they're very pleased and have had no problems at all," he says.

The fact that Transcor may take weeks to deliver a prisoner, Burnett adds, is more than offset by the cost savings involved. "It really doesn't matter to us if they fly them around the world and back," he says. "There are speedy trial issues, of course, at the front end of the system, but we're talking mostly about people at the back end of the system. We're not telling them they have to use the most direct route. We're most concerned about cost."

When Colorado first began to arrange mass transfers of prisoners to private jails in Texas, Burnett notes, the jail operators were eager to pay for charter flights so that they could start being paid for housing the state's overflow. Many of those prisoners are now returning on Transcor vans and buses because "the incentive to fly them back isn't there," he says. Yet most of the Texas inmates are being sent to the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minnesota, or the newly opened Huerfano County Correctional Center in Walsenburg, both of which are private prisons operated by Transcor's parent, CCA; the sooner the prisoners arrive, the sooner CCA begins receiving money from the state for them.

Transcor's contract with the DOC is up for renewal soon. Burnett says the contract will be put out for bid, but Transcor is clearly the dominant player in the field. "It's been a cost-effective contract for the state," BurneR>tt says, "and unless something dramatic changes, I don't see why we wouldn't continue it in the future."

Kupferer says Transcor is in a "constant growth mode"--with good reason. "We do as good a job as any law enforcement agency in the country moving prisoners," he boasts, "taking into consideration the unique type of movement we provide."

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